I've been thinking a lot lately about how one learns to be a graduate student. I've been rather frustrated with my grad class this term -- I'm afraid it's been really a rather mediocre experience. My students are nice enough, and some of them are bright. But they're just not doing the work, or doing it in the ways that I expect from graduate students.
At the institution where I did my Master's, it was common practice for faculty to hand out lists of secondary readings that were not on the syllabus, not exactly required reading -- but we were expected to read at least some of that material. Those lists were a set of critical signposts, some help with navigating the topics.
At the institution where I did my PhD, it was assumed that we had the skills to come up with our own lists of critical material. It was expected that you did the assigned reading for class, the extra research for your presentations and essays, and additional critical reading just to learn more about the topic. And, too, in order to not feel stupid in class discussion. Yes, it was a competitive culture that had many dark sides. But to be in a room of smart people who are trying to show off how much they've read about a text? Not that terrible a thing. The showing off could be tiresome, but we all did a lot of work, and it paid off.
Now, the department in which I teach is nothing like either of my graduate institutions. We are far from top tier, and our students are a motley bunch. Some are using our MA as a stepping stone to a better PhD program; others need to stay in this region for family or work reasons and need the credentials. Others are pursuing the PhD in order to teach at junior colleges. A small number of our best students get jobs at 4-year teaching colleges. But almost none of them are heading towards a research-intensive career.
Our students aren't professionalized when they arrive, and the culture in the department doesn't seem to be doing a good enough job of it. The graduate student association sometimes holds orientation sessions, and the faculty offer sessions on professional topics like preparing conference abstracts or getting ready for the job market. But no one is telling them how to behave in class.
I should make it clear that I don't expect that my students would behave the way I did when I was getting an MA. Their backgrounds and goals are very different from mine. But, what I do expect is that they come to class ready to discuss the material. That if I give them focus questions, they will at the very least have prepared something to say in response to those questions. I've been trying a whole range of different strategies (focus questions, informal writing, even group work) with only limited success. It's been frustrating to feel that I'm treating them like my undergrads, when I expect much more initiative from graduate students. And I tell them so. I try to make my expectations very clear.
I guess next year I will have to be even more blunt. But should one have to tell graduate students that they actually need to do the reading? That in a seminar you're expected to talk?